I was excited to get out into the woods despite the temperature of 25°. It was full sun, no wind, and the forecast for Saturday was predicting a transformative high of 60°. It would be a while before I'd have the chance to get out in the snow again. I was particularly grateful for my hiking companions, Liam, Huck ,Tess, and Chaka. While Liam and I mused about the meaning of life, the pointer, the shepherd, and the poodle showed us how to live it.
Just as we were nearing the trailhead on our descent, we crossed a shallow creek. Liam was the first to notice intriguing ice formations, a cluster of mushroom-esque ice globes; and then I saw the enchanting formations accompanying this post. He uttered something to the effect of, “is there even a word for that”, kicking off the second conversation I’ve had in a week about the relationship between words (or lack thereof) and experiences or things we want to think and communicate about. As far as I know, we don’t have a word for these objects in English, although perhaps there is a very technical one used by biologists or chemist. I also don’t think there is an English word for the delight and appreciation we took in discovering these natural, beautiful forms, although the Japanese have something that seems to come close 侘寂.
As I’ve been writing about the influence of positive emotions on our ability to act in our own future self-interest, and as this is particularly salient with the new-year quickly fading and many of our new year’s resolutions with it, my mind is drawn to think about that critical period just before we act against our own best interest. From the (perhaps) trivial decision to skip the gym to more consequential decisions that affect the fabric of our relationships and our essential wellbeing, there is a critical period where our commitment to our value-based decision wanes and ulterior motives gain momentum.
Considering that abandoning our goals is such a common experience, affecting us through a wide spectrum of behaviors, it is intriguing that we struggle to understand when and how we are on the cusp of betraying our self-interests. Perhaps one reason it is so difficult for us to be aware of the state of mind that transitions away from our long-term healthy goals to ulterior motives is that we don’t really have a word to describe this mental-emotional state. We can say that in the moment we are “vulnerable”, but vulnerable requires more context, more thinking. Unmotivated is too late, we’ve already crossed the threshold (perhaps not so late that we can’t reverse the course of action, but certainly late enough that it takes substantial resources). Ambivalent is too coarse, it describes the state of being undecided that may precede any commitment whatsoever or a transition from committed to uncommitted. It does not capture the state of “about to” or, “in the process of” transitioning.
Mindfulness is a powerful state of consciousness that focuses on awareness of the present moment from an open, non-judgmental perspective. It is a tool we can use to begin to identify what is happening inside us even before we take action. We may recognize that we are angry or agitated, and that our anger is manifesting as irritability with those around us. I particularly like that it works in both directions, through being mindful I might link my current irritability to a more general (often unrelated) mood of anger or sadness. Generally speaking, this process is aided by having a word for my state of mind, like angry, sad, anxious, etc. Without such a word, I’m apt to be left in a state of confusion or simply a lack of clarity on what is going on inside of me - and unfortunately, what I may be about to do.
While mindfulness is generally thought of as a state of mind, the awareness that we harness in the practice of mindfulness can be informed by much more than our mental thoughts and emotions. Our bodies are profound sources of knowledge that our culture discounts to our extreme detriment. One way to deepen your connection with knowledge housed in our bodies is to intentionally move your awareness from the five external senses and to simply aim it towards the interior of your body. Here is a terrain where we have few words to describe what it is we are paying attention to and how the awareness of "it" feels. We have to call on that elusive trust in the unknown as a path towards knowing. The only way to proceed down this path is to dive in and cultivate a relationship with being rather than knowing.
We have to work much harder to be able to recognize that which appears as ambiguous and unnamed, as something quite familiar (and dangerous). We must train our minds to recognize that conglomeration of vulnerability, lethargy, lazy, finicky (hmm, the connotation of these words is certainly not ambiguous) for what it is and to take corrective action to shore up our motivation and commitment to future-self. It’s certainly doable, but as collective experience demonstrates, without a firm label to place on it, we struggle to recognize, acknowledge and respond to this precarious state of knowing/being.
I am not forgetting that all words are abstractions; the word anger cannot actually capture the millions of experiences I've had in my life which I label as anger. Yet we have words for very clear reasons, they are efficient at helping us communicate, with ourselves as well as with others, about what is going on. As such, they do not have to be perfect descriptors, they merely have to be good enough.
I also want to acknowledge there are numerous, common techniques for staying on track with our goals, such as shoring up our levels of motivation and commitment through many very effective strategies such as assuring our goals are realistic, making our commitments public (accountability), incorporating social aspects (e.g. workout buddies, group runs), taking it one day at a time while maintaining an appreciation for future-me, recording our efforts and progress, etc. These methods are definitely helpful and increase the likelihood of persevering. I invite you to apply them alongside a mindfulness practice that focuses specifically on assessing how your current state of mind and body is contributing to your commitment and action.
If you know of a word, or make one up that captures what I’m talking about, please post it in the comments!
See more pictures from the hike here.